The decision by the Biden administration to study a possible 20-year mineral withdrawal affecting a portion of the Superior National Forest has generated plenty of predictable hyperbole from local politicians and others who have used the opportunity to herald the imminent demise of the Iron Range economy and the continued U.S. dependence on foreign sources of minerals, among other things.
Such claims rest on certain assumptions, most of which are questionable.
As this newspaper has argued for years, a “proposed” mine is not actually a thing until someone can provide evidence that it is economically viable. Twin Metals and its parent company, Antofagasta, have yet to provide even a hint of potential profitability. Until the company releases independently developed financials showing the capital costs, the operational costs, and the anticipated revenues, any claim of jobs or other economic benefits is nothing more than corporate spin.
What’s more, it is entirely possible that the economy of the Ely area would be harmed were the mine to be built. While many in the area don’t like to acknowledge it, Ely has done better than many other parts of the Iron Range, in large part because of the broad economic benefits of the Boundary Waters and the outdoor recreation economy that it has fostered. Those benefits go way beyond what we traditionally think of as “tourism” and include many other sectors, such as real estate, construction, home furnishings, insurance, and finance. These aren’t speculative benefits that might arrive someday. They’re real, are here today, and can continue indefinitely as long as we protect the wilderness upon which they are based.
What’s more, a 2016 study by a Harvard economist found that the initial local economic benefits of the Twin Metals mine, which would mostly be felt during the construction phase, would be quickly overshadowed by the losses to these other sectors. Within just a few years, according to the study, total local income would most likely decline with a mine, as compared to a continuation of the Ely area’s current economic model.
Meanwhile, claims that the Twin Metals mine will help reduce our dependence on foreign sources of critical metals are equally dubious. One thing that Twin Metals has, thankfully, not proposed is a smelter. While that lessens the mine’s threat to air quality, it almost certainly means that the ore produced by the mine will leave America’s shores for final processing, most likely in China. Once there, the copper will become part of the global supply chain, indistinguishable from the copper produced anywhere else in the world. It will do nothing to reduce our foreign dependence on the metal.
Nor will it prevent children in the Congo from being exploited in Chinese-controlled mines located in that African country, as Rep. Pete Stauber falsely claimed in a ridiculous recent letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. It would be nice to think that a new mine in Minnesota would prompt a Chinese company to clean up its act in the Congo, but there is absolutely no connection. If anything, putting more copper on the international market will prompt those Chinese mines to adopt even more exploitative practices in order to cut costs. It was just one of many head-slappers deployed by Stauber in his embarrassing missive to the Secretary.
As we argued nearly five years ago when the Obama administration announced its own mineral withdrawal effort, the Biden administration has taken a positive step for the Ely area economy.
The years of uncertainty and division within the Ely community have almost certainly been a drag on the local economy. Over the past ten years, Cook County, on the other end of the Boundary Waters, has been one of the fastest-growing counties, by percentage, in Minnesota, and managed that feat by focusing in a united fashion on quality of life centered on outdoor recreation. Ely, with its constant fighting over a speculative mining venture, mostly managed to miss out on that growth. Talk about an opportunity cost.
We certainly don’t envision the longstanding divide in Ely to disappear in a Kumbaya-like moment any time soon, but at least the old fights— over relatively minor things like motor quotas, truck portages, and cell towers— didn’t pose existential threats to the wilderness or the economy that’s built up around it.
If we’re still writing about a copper-nickel mine a decade from now, Ely’s economy will be poorer for it. The sooner the area can move past this debate and focus on a sustainable economic future the better.
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